The Scene:  Spring dance recital.

The Location:  A clean, bright church in the heart of downtown.

The Players:  Scores of dance students in assorted matching ensembles, ranging from restless, over-stimulated three-year-olds in tremulous tutus to high-school students demurely draped and displaying the detached nonchalance of stage veterans.

The Audience:  Efficient young parents, speeding each dancer to the correct pre-show location and trailed by doting grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends.

Opening act:  If you have ever attended a dance performance to witness the efforts of your own child or another apple of your eye, you will know the fundamental laws of such occasions that universally apply.  The first is that you will be appalled by the length of the program.  How many children in the average metro area can possibly be installed in tap, ballet, and modern dance offered weekly?  Apparently, thousands.

The second law is that you may well expend your best self to claim a good seat early, but your child’s number is not first.  Or second. It is buried deep into the program, testing will and endurance, especially for the Tiny Dancers and those who love them most.  And finally, consideration for the feelings of others must prevail.  Take care about laughing audibly at someone else’s child, because yours might do something even funnier.

Settling into the pew and enjoying the pre-show anticipation in the air, I joined Sis’ paternal grandparents, with warm appreciation for their effort to drive three hours to attend. A quick scan of the program prompted a deep, cleansing breath.  The entertainment featured a series of 22 performances, and Sis and her ensemble were slotted at number 17.  A cheerful, commanding female claimed the microphone to announce the requisites and signal for lights down and music up. We were off.

Well, one wants to do the right thing, of course, and clap appreciatively for all performances. Nevertheless, about the time that some ten Tinies in leotards of multi-colored sequins were wreaking their particular brand of havoc on stage, the mind began to wander.   Memory hovered on the testimony of the immortal Bertie Wooster, hero and foil of the Jeeves stories of  British humorist P. G. Wodehouse.  Recalling a series of amateur performances at a village concert, Bertie described the opening violin solo like this:

“It was loud in spots, and less loud in other spots, and it had that quality I have noticed in all violin solos, which is seeming to last much longer than it actually did.”

Jarred out of the Wodehouse analogy by the next enthusiastic round of applause from the commendably patient audience, I re-focused and realized something interesting. By the time we clocked into about Dance Number 8 or 9, patterns emerged.  Without commentary on child psychology or related questions, I can vouch that each Tiny Troupe featured the following roles, whether undertaken voluntarily or not.

The Free Bird:  Detaches self from group, ignores teacher and all other performers, runs wildly around the stage perimeter in some routine of the dancer’s own devising.  Some Free Birds had to be removed from the stage by force majeure at the conclusion of the number.

The Statue:  Stands frozen in terror, staring fixedly into audience.  Cannot move feet, may clutch hands, possibly in subconscious plea for removal.  Bravely resists crying but clearly would like to.

The Two-Timer:  Cannot decide whether to follow teacher or fellow performers so alternates, turning from front-facing to peer-view position and back again, remaining a few steps behind throughout.  Our Sis took this role and performed it with enthusiasm (see photo above, far right).

The Good Soldier:  Stays in designated position, eyes locked on teacher, following carefully with intense concentration.  Demonstrates total commitment, but may or may not look happy about it.

The Star that’s Born:  This performer follows the routine to perfection, even adding a flourish or two of his or her own, here and there.  Lights up with genuine delight at the applause of the audience, floats off stage on a cloud.

Do these roles illuminate windows into the future for these Tinies, and into the paths they pursue?  I would pay excellent money to reconvene them in about 20 years and find out., but I will have to settle for watching our Sis.  She seemed more interested in her sparkling outfit and post-performance flowers than the actual dance, and it occurred to me I would have felt the same in her tiny ballet shoes.  Nevertheless, all survived and success was ultimately declared.

Meanwhile, the real heroes of the evening seemed to be the teachers, who led their Tiny Troupes through their routines with unwavering grace, radiating encouragement.  Proving that indeed The Show Must Go On, they were neither distracted by The Free Birds nor de-railed by the Two-Timers.   Mentally I file this latest addition to my own private list of heroes, which includes firefighters, cops, plumbers, tech support specialists, and Seal Team Six.  They have heard and seen it all, and life holds no further surprises for them.  Had I encountered one of these beacons of hope when departing at the evening’s conclusion, I would have been tempted to salute.

I like to think I became a grandparent at a fairly young age (don’t we all?).  Let’s don’t dwell on whether that is a delusion.  Just believe me when I say that life can sometimes look very similar to the way it rolled before the age of the spirit begins to diverge widely from the age of the body, and before the family grew by an additional generation.  Some challenges with my grandchildren are the same ones I had with my own young daughter, raising her as a single mom beginning almost three decades ago.

Chief among those is the struggle to give the children more of my time.  Like so many grandparents today, I remain a working professional with a more-than-full-time job and a family I adore that is spread over many miles.  Add to those factors a desire to give time back to the community and reasonable attempts at a social life and downtime, and the sum total spins the days forward at a turbo-charged pace.  And the only thing moving faster than the merciless calendar is the rate at which the children mature and change, and the heart longs not to miss it.

So it was that I was deep into some rudimentary problem at the office a few days ago when I noticed my cell phone vibrating on silent with a call from my daughter.  This was not routine; she has much-appreciated respect for the moderate insanity of my usual workday and almost never calls me before 6 p.m.  It was a few hours before quitting time, but I couldn’t stifle a prick of anxiety, so I picked up her voice message at my first opportunity.

“Mom,“ says my daughter’s voice, chirping out on the speaker, “sorry to bother you at work, but Sis wanted me to call you.  She just said she wanted to talk to you, so I thought I’d try and see if you could pick up.  We’ll catch you later.  Bye!”

Sis wanted to call me?  I’m charmed to distraction, wondering what was on her three-year-old mind.  I must call back ASAP to ascertain. But various tasks loom large before I can finish the day, so rush, rush through those, rush home through annoying traffic, rush the dog out for her business and fill her food bowl. Where did the day evaporate to? The sun is low on the horizon. Breathe at least once—now, time to call Sis back.Calendar

Well, hang it, it’s already her bedtime.  Time got away from me again, but I’ll try anyway.  And let’s tap the wonders of technology and use the videophone, and maybe I’ll get a glimpse of that little face.  My daughter, who knows me well, picks up even though they are cuddled in Sis’ bed, finishing a story with the lights down.  “You can talk to Evie for just a minute,” says my daughter softly to her little one, turning the camera to center it on the child, “then it’s bedtime.”

I can see Sis’ expression in the dim late light, and she is tired.  Her mother’s voice is tired, and I am beyond tired myself.  Hey, sweetheart, I say softly, I heard you wanted to call me, so I wanted to be sure to call you back.  What’s on your mind?

“Evie,” she begins, then falters, facing the camera’s eye, squirming and digging deeper into her covers.  Yes, precious? I encourage.  “Evie,” she repeats, with uncharacteristic brevity, snaring a lock of hair on a tiny finger and tugging it while she contemplates my face on the phone screen.  Yes, sweetheart, I inquire again, debating to myself whether this is an expert bedtime-avoidance stall or something our little chatterbox really needs to share.  (Sis is an Olympic-level competitor in the Bedtime Stall.) Either way, Time My Enemy is ticking away, and I want to be out of my work clothes, off my feet, and tucking into some form of late dinner.  My heart wants to complete this little circle, but my head wants to get on with it.  My toes are not tapping with impatience, but they are thinking about it. Why does it always, always have to feel like time is so short?

“Sis, we have to hang up so you can go to sleep,” prompts my daughter with admirable patience (while I hope my lack thereof is not showing). “Tell Evie what you need to tell her.”

The child heaves a tired sigh and turns toward the phone screen for one last effort.  “Evie,” she says slowly and carefully, “I love you.”

And for just a moment, time stops.

It is a truth universally acknowledged (as the immortal Austen might have put it), that giving stuff to kids is fun.

They make it so easy for you, the little buggers, when they radiate anticipation, joy, and wonder in such bewitching fashion, whether ripping into a birthday gift, staring through that store window, or beholding the bounty of Santa Claus.  Who can resist providing such golden moments, frozen in memory for years to come?

Well, I could, and I did.

When Buddy and Sis were tiny miniature people, not even walking yet, I watched the massive pileups of festive packages at Christmas and first birthdays and thought:  This is ridiculous.  These children have too much stuff, they will never play with all of it, never remember most of it, surely never realize who showered all this on their blessed little unknowing heads.  It was not the fault of their parents, or really anyone in particular—it was the collective outpouring of affection from many that looked like the offerings of a bunch of Anglophiles invited to a birthday party for young Prince George.  Those thoughts birthed other, shadowy contemplations about the materialism of our culture, the financial implications of giving children so much, the unending cycle of more, more, more.  I was raised by practical, realistic people, who loved the spirit of giving but moderated sensibly (and essentially, with four children) and started very early teaching the important truths about earning, and sacrificing, to get what we want.

I pondered this and started by holding myself a few steps removed from the gift extravaganzas, resisting the temptation to bring random gifts when I visited, carefully selecting relatively modest options on the obligatory occasions, refusing to think I could demonstrate commitment or build bonds with what I bought them.

And then some stuff happened.

The first was a memorable misfire.  When Buddy turned four last spring, I had fun selecting a bright green teeter-totter designed with the face of an alligator, or perhaps a crocodile, because I have always been confused about the difference.  The gator/croc seats two, and I thought:  Perfect!  It’s active, it’s healthy, it’s cute, they’ll love it.  Wrong. Early interest was noticeably minimal, then Sis fell off and created a stir, and it was clear we had a dud.  Confirmation was offered later, when I happened to mention the gator/croc rocker.  Buddy horrified his listening parents with precise, solemn honesty: “Next year on my birthday, will you get me something I want?”

But the real force that knocked me off my lofty perch was the simple passage of time.  The children became talkative toddlers, imaginations running wild, something bizarre and hilarious forever on their minds and coming out their mouths.  Anyone with ears and a heart, listening and seeing things through their eyes…well, what happens?  You know how this ends, don’t you? Stay tuned for delivery of the evidence.

Sis turned three a few weeks back, and I joined an expedition for birthday tea at the American Girl store.++  Contemplating this in advance, I feared disaster.  Tea and birthday cupcakes with the birthday doll (dressed to match the birthday girl), very cute and fun, can’t wait to see it.  But let her roam through the store, with piles of product on glorious display as far as a three-year-old can see?  What if she asks for one of everything?  Isn’t this trap invented by an evil marketing genius?

At first, Sis surprised me, as she so often does.  When the post-tea store tour commenced, she skipped from one display to the next, telling everyone, “It’s my birfday,” exclaiming over much and asking for little.  I watched for clues to select my own gift, but got nothing. Then I crossed the store to find the ladies room and missed the inevitable challenge.  Her mother reported it went as follows.

Sis put her birthday doll into a bright pink doll stroller with fat, maneuverable wheels and handles at just the right height, and promptly pushed her baby for a spin.  Come along, her mother said after a few turns, we need to go now.  No, came the heartbroken wail, my baby NEEDS it, and she clung stubbornly, refusing to turn loose.  Finally, her mother pried her hands off the handles and led the tearful birthday girl away before the scene reached genuine meltdown stage.  This all transpired, thank goodness, before I returned.  Because I might have caved right then, much worse (or so I told myself) than caving once the child was out of sight.

Naturally, the earlier, tougher, morally grounded me would never reward such behavior by buying the item, even though Sis recovered with more grace and self-possession than might have been expected under the circumstances.  I would have chosen something else entirely, to drive home a lesson that we never achieve good ends by behaving badly in public.

That was then, and this is now.  As with so many other things involving these children, I don’t know if it was right or wrong, or if grandparenting drives reason and logic to the far and high hills, or whether I’m over-thinking the entire dadgum thing.  But it ended this way:  Sis got the stroller (though not til the next day—give me that, please), Birthday Baby got a fine new ride, and I must face the mirror and admit I’m as susceptible to spoiling as any grandparent on this earth.  At least there is solace in knowing I have a lot of company.




++Our experience at the American Girl store was indeed memorable.  The staff was charming to the children and exceptionally helpful, the products interesting in their detailed connection to periods of American history, the dolls diverse and representative of many origins in our American culture. I can recommend it to other parents and grandparents, but I receive no benefit from doing so here.